Language and Human Nature


Osiatynski: Language, then, is a key to human nature?

Chomsky: In Western scientific thought of the last several centuries there has been a tendency to assume that human nature is limited to the immediately observable physical structure of the organism. And that for other aspects of human nature, specifically for behavior, there are no genetically determined structures of comparable complexity to the directly observable physical organization of the body. So human physical structures and intellectual structures are generally studied in different ways. The assumption is that physical structures are genetically inherited and intellectual structures are learned.

I think that this assumption is wrong. None of these structures is learned. They all grow; they grow in comparable ways; their ultimate forms are heavily dependent on genetic predispositions. If we understood, as we do not, the physical bases for these structures, I have little doubt that we would find structures in the brain for social interactions, or language, or analysis of personality — a whole variety of systems developed on the basis of a specific biological endowment.

Osiatynski: Do you mean that all our behavior is innate, genetically determined?

Chomsky: No, but the basic structures for our behavior are innate. The specific details of how they grow would depend on interaction with the environment.

Osiatynski: Supposing linguistics could describe one such structure, would the findings apply to all our intellectual activities? Do we think only in language? Or do there exist nonlinguistic forms of thinking too?

Chomsky: The analysis of linguistic structures could help in understanding other intellectual structures. Now, I don’t think there is any scientific evidence about the question of whether we think only in language or not. But introspection indicates pretty clearly that we don’t think in language necessarily. We also think in visual images, we think in terms of situations and events, and so on, and many times we can’t even express in words what the content of our thinking is. And even if we are able to express it in words, it is a common experience to say something and then to recognize that it is not what we meant, that it is something else.

What does this mean? That there is a kind of nonlinguistic thought going on which we are trying to represent in language, and we know that sometimes we fail.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

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3 thoughts on “Language and Human Nature

  1. This is very intriguing, thanks for sharing this! If you come to think about it, it makes sense, since only a little part of our brain is responsible for language.

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